Mainstream media didn’t start to take the fantasy genre seriously until Peter Jackson’s highly acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy. After the massive success of the three films (which would, in turn, transform Hollywood production as we know it), every studio attempted to jump into fantasy with its own take on the genre. I don’t need to list the deluge of media that followed, but ultimately it culminated in HBO creating Game of Thrones based on some popular novels by George R.R. Martin
This history lesson might seem unrelated, but it actually informs The Witcher more than you’d expect. Netflix has basically seen another popular fantasy series –this time based on novels by polish author Andrzej Sapkowski that rose to fame because of a game series by CD Projekt Red– and decided it could turn this into the next Game of Thrones. Cue the violence, curse words, and sex scenes.
Despite cribbing of a lot of imagery and themes from other media, The Witcher does have a few tricks up its sleeve. Sadly, cohesion is not one of them.
The Witcher (Season One)
Showrunner: Lauren Schmidt Hissrich
Release Date: December 20, 2019 (Netflix)
We begin The Witcher with a fight scene that sees main protagonist Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) battling some crazy monster. In a showing of CGI that would embarrass the SyFy channel, Geralt eventually thwarts the beast and makes way to a tavern. His kind, i.e. a Witcher, aren’t welcomed in this town, but Geralt doesn’t really care. He just wants his money and will be on his way.
Shortly after, a beautiful lady catches his eye and demands the bar keep give him a drink. No one seems particularly taken to her, either, but she harbors a power or force that gets them to go along with her requests. Named Renfri (Emma Appleton), she presents Geralt with a job opportunity to kill an evil sorcerer that stole her life from her. Geralt eventually meets with said sorcerer and is presented another opportunity to kill Renfri. Thus a moral quandary is formed and we, the audience, get to see how Geralt handles the scenario.
Having next to no knowledge of The Witcher prior to watching this series, I can safely say that the show does not do a good job of getting its audience up to speed. Despite following the novels more closely than the games, The Witcher assumes familiarity with its source material for viewers to get the most out of it. As you can see from that description above, there’s no indication of why Geralt is so disliked, how he became a Witcher, whatever a Witcher even is, or why magic and monsters exist within this world.
To be fair, a lot of these questions aren’t exactly necessary to enjoy the show. One can just blindly accept that Geralt is different and let his actions inform their knowledge of his origins. That’s likely how the books were written as they follow an anthology style to storytelling. This is something the Netflix show also does, having self-contained episodes with only minor plot threads lingering between each.
It’s a decent enough premise for a series and one that gives you a great understanding of Geralt’s personality. Focusing on a single character isn’t what The Witcher does, though. Instead of making a somewhat straight forward fantasy romp, showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has decided to quickly introduce eventually important characters in a haphazard way. Alongside Geralt’s tale of moral ambiguity in the first episode, viewers are introduced to Princess Cirilla of Cintra (Freya Allan) as her kingdom is ransacked by the invading Nilfgaard forces. Rushed out of her home, her grandmother (Jodhi May) tells Cirilla to locate Geralt. For some reason, he is her destiny.
The why for that last part does eventually become revealed, but not before the show introduces a third main figure in Yennefer (Anya Chalotra). The second episode begins on a farm in the village of Vengerberg and sees a poor hunchbacked girl being assaulted and mistreated because of her disability. Randomly while being attacked, she teleports herself to a distant castle and is introduced to Istredd (Royce Pierreson). The man sees immense potential in her and warns her that his superior, Tissaia (MyAnne Burning), will come for her.
Tissaia eventually shows up and buys Yennefer for a meager price. From there, she saves the girl from a suicide attempt and molds her into becoming one of the most powerful mages the world has ever seen. It’s a shockingly good introduction for Yennefer, but it comes at the cost of muddling the timeline the The Witcher takes place in.
This is further made confusing as in the third episode; Yennefer reveals she has been a mage for roughly three decades. If you’re going by how the show is presented, this will be a huge shock. Nothing about time skips or non-linear storytelling is mentioned beforehand and suddenly the overall structure is made unclear. The fourth episode then reveals that Cirilla’s plotline is the present while Geralt and Yennefer’s is in the past, but there doesn’t appear to be any reason for this multi-generational narrative.
Stories don’t need to be expressly told from beginning to end, but Cirilla’s escape from Cintra and her struggle to stay alive don’t inform anything that Geralt and Yennefer are doing. It really does feel like Hissrcih wanted to cast the main players for this series so she could lock them into a contract for subsequent seasons. Giving them some screen time means they are likely returning in the future.
It still doesn’t make the awkward time skips any more logical. You’ll see characters get killed off in one episode only to return in the very next story. Geralt’s tale is mostly of good quality, keeping things consistent and focusing on his continuing adventures. It’s just that Yennefer and Cirilla feel shoehorned in simply because they’ve become fan favorites from the games.
Despite that massive hurdle (which does drag down the otherwise good production), The Witcher isn’t a bad show. It has some issues as any series does, but the dissection of Geralt’s character is the best thing about what Netflix has captured. Going with the anthology route, most of his adventures feel like a character study of a man that doesn’t fit into “modern” society. Geralt is either loved or hated by the people around him and most can’t seem to understand what he desires.
Being around for an undetermined amount of time –likely decades from the way he talks–, Geralt has seen the bad side of humanity and doesn’t have time for people’s nonsense. He is there to live up to some code he seemingly makes up on the spot, but he ultimately wants to find the good in this world and protect it. He’s not exactly a martyr, but he will get his hands dirty to keep others clean.
It’s mostly good storytelling. Cavill’s imposing physical presence makes up for his lack of nuance as an actor since Geralt doesn’t require much in the way of verbal lines. His voice can sometimes sound goofy (Geralt swearing is easily the worst aspect of this show), but I’m convinced that Cavill was meant to play this role. It’s almost too good of a match.
The other actors are also fairly good in their parts. No one phones in a performance and while it’s kind of average with regards to fantasy, it creates a believable atmosphere for the show. I never stopped to think “this is just a production on a set” while watching, apart from when CG hit the screen. There’s only so much you can do with a limited budget, but Netflix at least focused on the costume and set design instead of making sure its computer graphics were top-grade.
Another thing I wasn’t expecting was the lack of action sequences. The Witcher is more about Geralt than throwing down with monsters and I’m happy Netflix focused on that instead of the violence. We do get some clashed swords and magical showdowns, but a lot of this series centers on the discussions Geralt has with the characters around him.
About the only real negative here is the runtime of each episode. Because of the need to fit into so many characters, each episode is an hour in length, save for one towards the end. They feel like mini-movies instead of discreet episodes, though that’s perhaps in line with the anthology approach. Still, it’s a lot to take in and some of the runtime doesn’t feel like it is being utilized all that well. Cirilla, in particular, almost feels incidental to the rest of the stories unfolding.
Combined with the time skipping and The Witcher feels like two half-formed ideas thrown together. There is a kernel of something great within, but more attention needs to be given to its main character to truly get there. The finale does hint at a more cohesive structure for season two, which can only be good in the long run. The jumbled mess of different eras doesn’t serve this show well.
I do truly want to enjoy The Witcher more than I did, but it just needs some refinement to get to true greatness. With Netflix not rushing into the second season (production is set to begin later in 2020), it seems even it doesn’t want to spoil something good.